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Biotech Science

Life May Have Evolved In Ice 159

Posted by Zonk
from the where-else-would-it-evolve-i-tell-you-not-jersey dept.
Philip Bailey writes "An article in this month's Discover Magazine claims that some of the fundamental organic molecules required for the development of life could have spontaneously arisen within ice. Scientist Stanley Miller was responsible for seminal experiments in the 1950s in this area. He used sparks and a mixture of inorganic chemicals to test his theories, but turned to low temperature experiments in later years. He was able to create the constituents of RNA and proteins from a mixture of cyanide, ammonia and ice in trials lasting up to 25 years. A process known as eutectic freezing is thought to be the basis of these results: small pockets of liquid water, in which foreign molecules are concentrated enormously, increases the reaction rates, and more than compensates for temperature-related slowing."
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Life May Have Evolved In Ice

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  • Star Trek (Score:3, Funny)

    by Nerdfest (867930) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:03PM (#22286402)
    He should probably avoid Q if he wants to push up his success rate.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      No tampering with the primordial soup, such as pouring in a tall steaming mug of the frosty piss!
       
  • Ice... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icegreentea (974342) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:15PM (#22286468)
    Was the earth even cold enough back then to have that much ice? My understanding is that life began about 3 billion years ago, and that Hadean Earth pretty much lasted until then.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Indeed, especially since that was of course before cyanbacteria & friends turned off the enormous greenhouse effect by converting nearly all the CO2 to Oxygen - which then caused Snowball Earth and nearly killed life again (a chain of events the first intelligent form of life on this planet might want to keep in mind). I guess sol was much dimmer back then so that balanced out, or the intense vulcanism in on the young earth prevented much of the sunlight from reaching earth...
    • Re:Ice... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by osu-neko (2604) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:53PM (#22286668)
      Closer to four billion years ago (at least 3.7 billion in any case). And the conclusion here is not that life evolved in ice, but that it may have. It's possible. That has less significance for history on Earth as it does on other worlds...
      • Nobody was around to write it down, so I guess it doesn't count as "history", but if that's how life evolved here it certainly *was* significant, and I'm not only glad it happened, but I wouldn't be here to say so if it hadn't, and neither would history.

        On the other hand, if that's *not* how life evolved here, then it wasn't significant for history here, and the Ice Planet can have it if they want.

        You can adjust those theories as needed if you think Panspermia was part of the process; it seems far less like

    • by rssrss (686344)
      "Was the earth even cold enough back then to have that much ice?"

      Sure. The Hummer hadn't been invented back then.
    • Re:Ice... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by radtea (464814) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @10:22PM (#22286820)
      Was the earth even cold enough back then to have that much ice?

      Possibly.

      One of the ongoing problems in paleobiology is the "early quiet sun". Solar models, which we now know to be extremely accurate based on solar neutrino measurements, show that the sun was considerably dimmer in the distant past. So dim that by any reasonable standard we would expect the Earth to be substantially covered with... ice.

      A mechanism that would cause life to form in an icy environment would give a lot of answers to open questions.

      Google "standard solar model", "early quiet sun" and "Sudbury Neutrino Observatory" for some of the background on this.
      • Re:Ice... (Score:5, Funny)

        by Skreems (598317) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @10:35PM (#22286880) Homepage
        The only result for "early quiet sun" is a hit on some site talking about early Brian Eno recordings...
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Tablizer (95088)
        One of the ongoing problems in paleobiology is the "early quiet sun". Solar models, which we now know to be extremely accurate based on solar neutrino measurements, show that the sun was considerably dimmer in the distant past. So dim that by any reasonable standard we would expect the Earth to be substantially covered with... ice.

        Yes, but the atmosphere makeup has a big effect also, and the nature of the early atmosphere is still up in the air (pun). The planet itself was also warmer back then due to act
      • by dryeo (100693)
        I though it was pretty well excepted that there was enough methane in the atmosphere to of created enough of a greenhouse effect that the Earth wasn't unduly cold.
    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      Yes, "Hadean Earth pretty much lasted until then", give or take a billion years or so, pretty much.

      Keep in mind that multicellular life has only existed for the past 200 million years, so these aren't exactly coffee breaks we're talking about. We already knew that ice can cover most of the earth within a few millenia, and as we are quickly finding out, it can disappear even faster than that if you put in a little effort. Ice reflects light, cooling off the earth, and water absorbs light, warming it, so both
      • by pokerdad (1124121)

        Keep in mind that multicellular life has only existed for the past 200 million years

        You might want to check your facts [wikipedia.org].

        And nothing I have ever read has indicated that "Earth probably has about another billion years of useful life left before the sun has its midlife crisis"; everything has always said 3 to 5 billion years.

        • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

          You might want to check your facts.

          Yeah, a few hundred million years here, a few hundred million there, and soon you're talking about a seriously long time. But if you look at that timeline, an animal with the brains required for technology would have been wildly improbable more than 200 million years ago ago. The Cambrian explosion was 500 million years ago, but for a long time after that there weren't really any good brains to work with yet- just reptilian and amphibian structures. The neocortex evolved v
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Hognoxious (631665)

          nothing I have ever read has indicated that "Earth probably has about another billion years of useful life left before the sun has its midlife crisis"; everything has always said 3 to 5 billion years.
          Phew, I was worried for a moment there!

      • by G-funk (22712)
        Are we burning fossil fuels from a few hundred million years ago, or is multicelluar life only 200 million years old?
        • The grandparent post got it wrong. Dinosaurs lasted for about 180 Million years, and died off about 65 Million years ago. Before that, there was a time when most plants were ferns, animals were mostly insects and amphibians, with a few reptiles. That was when the first protomammals appeard. That period lasted for 50 to 100 million years on most timelines. Before that, life was mostly in the oceans. (fish and such). before that, there were shelled organisms and worms. That takes us back almost 500 million ye
    • by sm62704 (957197)
      Key words: could have. The fact is that nobody has the faintest idea how life started. Evolution doesn't explain the beginning of life, only how it has changed.

      Before there was life, everything was dead. How did a randome mixture of dead chemicals become alive? Nobody has the slightest clue; or if they have, they haven't communicated it to me.

      Here's a thought: Was there life on the planet that became earth before the object that slammed into it creating the earth and its moon existed?

      -mcgrew

      no muse, no jour
    • Maybe, but the earth could have been seeded by masses of ice laced with organic materials that impacted it. Also, from studying ancient zircon crystals found in cratons there is evidence pointing at the earth having cooled much faster than originally supposed.
    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      My understanding is that life began about 3 billion years ago, and that Hadean Earth pretty much lasted until then.

      The fossil record of stromatolites extends to at least 3.2 billion (10^9) years ago ; claims have been made (and disputed!) for finding microfossils of bacteria-like forms (cocci and bacilli) from a 3.56 billion-year-old chert from Australia. Some isotope specialists working on graphite inclusions in apatite crystals from 3.7 billion-year-old claim to see isotope ratios suggestive of (but not p

  • So, the layout change was just for that one article? Please say yes...

    I'm so happy to see things back to normal for this article -- you've no idea.
    • Not quite, although it only seems to be accessable through the "idle" section, from there you can access any other section and article summary, similar in fashion to the firehose. Once you click "read more," however, the articles are presented in the good old fashion, save for 'idle' articles.
    • by Wingnut64 (446382)
      You can change it back to the original format under 'Comments' in your user preferences.
  • by sweet_petunias_full_ (1091547) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:17PM (#22286482)


    Some say the world evolved in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I've tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To know that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

    To be sure, some sparks were still needed for the ice theory but there you have it.

    • Yay! I'd mod you if I had 'em :)
    • To be sure, some sparks were still needed for the ice theory but there you have it.
      Of course. The life couldn't start anywhere but at the border between the fires of Muspelheim [wikipedia.org] and the ices of Niflheim [wikipedia.org].

      And the article claims it's a new theory. Bah! Bah, I say!
  • oblig. (Score:5, Funny)

    by owlnation (858981) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:20PM (#22286498)
    I, for one, welcome our new penguin overlords.

    All hail Tux!
  • by G4from128k (686170) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:24PM (#22286512)
    Although I can certainly see how the physics of freezing would help concentrate biological precursors, I would expect an icy-origin to have left more evidence in the form of cryophilic biodiversity. With an icy origin, ice-tolerant organisms should have arisen quite early. Indeed they would have probably been the first life forms and ice-adapted life would have been quite common. Unless the Earth experienced a 100% ice-free period, descendants of those original cryophiles would be with us to this day. Moreover, many "normal" species would still arbor a shared genetic basis for evolving ice-tolerance or cryophilic lifestyles.

    Instead, we seem to see limited scattering species that have independently evolved various forms of ice-tolerance. I could be wrong. If so, I'd love to hear if biologists have found evidence for a widely shared mechanism for ice-tolerance that speaks to a frozen beginning.
    • by Cassius Corodes (1084513) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:42PM (#22286596)
      That's a very good point - given that the simplest life forms we have found so far (in terms of the length of the dna) are ones that are evolved for normal (ie-non icy) conditions. However its interesting to note that for most bacteria being frozen is not lethal (although I'm not 100% sure on this), rather it just stops doing anything until it thaws and then continues on.
    • by Epistax (544591) <epistax@noSPam.gmail.com> on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:51PM (#22286660) Journal
      I thought everyone knew this. Cryophiles taste awesome.
    • Ever heard of watermelon snow? Or algae that lives on ice(and has a nice watermelon scent)? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_algae/ [wikipedia.org] But, I definitely agree, why aren't cryophiles so much more common?
      • by Magada (741361)
        (Nearly) wiped out in the subsequent global warming phase? This is a long time we're talking about and the life that may have arisen then may not have conformed too closely to the modern definition. Even if everything from that first flourishing got killed, the accumulations of organic compounds left behind may have made the (re-)appearance of life on Earth that much more probable.
    • by Spaseboy (185521)
      I think it's more interesting to show that on planets with no liquid water but with ice, there is a chance of life.
    • by OzRoy (602691) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @10:00PM (#22286704)

      Unless the Earth experienced a 100% ice-free period, descendants of those original cryophiles would be with us to this day.
      I believe that is the case. A few very large volcanic eruptions increased the CO2 and caused high temperatures and no polar ice caps. I think this is one of the theories as to why we have such large oil deposits. Without the polar ice caps the ocean currents stopped flowing, and the CO2 in the atmosphere was removed very slowly by algea that died and sank to the ocean floor and in the right areas were trapped and converted into an oil deposit.

      Of course it is a little bit more involved than that and this is only my vague layman understanding. Someone else can fill in all the details.
      • by Skreems (598317)
        Actually, most of the world outside the US has come to the conclusion that oil deposits are inorganic in nature. It explains a lot, including why some old dry wells are spontaneously refilling from some deeper source.
        • no, the theory that oil has a non-biological origin is still a minority opinion, and for good reason.
          • by Skreems (598317)
            It's majority enough that it's taught as the leading theory in all of Europe, and possibly further. I'm not saying I believe it, but the organic origin doesn't seem to be completely nailed down.
        • Actually, the idea is just some oil companies wet dream to counter the inevitable economic reality of peak oil. It adds nothing in the way of explaination.
          • by Skreems (598317)
            How does an inorganic origin counter peak oil? No matter where it comes from, there's going to be a point where we've exhausted the deposits we can reasonably get access to.
            • by TapeCutter (624760) on Monday February 04, 2008 @04:03AM (#22288678) Journal
              So why did you claim that it explains "dry wells refilling", and where is your source for the "everyone is taught this in Europe" claim you made in reply to the other poster?

              It's FUD just like the anti-global warming FUD they have been peddling for the last 20yrs. Here is a random site [fromthewilderness.com] that debunks the abiotic oil theory, there are many more out there.

              And yes, a "-1 wrong" mod would come in handy, but for this kind of thing a "-1 bullshit" is more appropriate.
              • by nguy (1207026)
                It's FUD just like the anti-global warming FUD they have been peddling for the last 20yrs.

                How does claiming that global warming is not occurring spread "fear, uncertainty, and doubt"? FUD isn't even necessarily false. You really need to watch your terminology for corporate marketing misdeeds. Abiotic oil and anti-global warming are marketing lies, not FUD. (Actually, deep abiotic oil seems plausible to me, but may not be of any economic relevance.)

            • Oh and to answer your question - it doesn't, but since old wells magically refill when left fallow it moves the peak far enough into the future that it is no longer a concern. It was an interesting idea in the 80's and tens of millions of dollars were spent investigating it. However flogging a dead oil well is no more productive than flogging a dead horse or a dead theory.
            • by nguy (1207026)
              How does an inorganic origin counter peak oil?

              Because there would likely be a lot more oil in very deep deposits that haven't even been looked at.

              No matter where it comes from, there's going to be a point where we've exhausted the deposits we can reasonably get access to.

              Not necessarily. In fact, one problem with inorganic oil is that we can probably keep burning it until we run out of oxygen entirely.
          • by TheLink (130905)
            It doesn't necessarily counter the reality of peak oil.

            No matter what the origin of the oil is whether biogenic or not, if the rate of creation is a lot lower than the rate of consumption, you will have "peak oil". The wells definitely aren't being filled up at the same rate they are being emptied.

            Which oil companies are saying that we will never run out of oil? They'll just raise prices as it gets scarce, and if there's a good alternative energy source, you can be sure they'd try to get into that business.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by OzRoy (602691)
        This is completely off-topic, but the event I mentioned is called an Anoxic Event ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anoxic_event [wikipedia.org] ) and how this relates to oil production is talked about in this fascinating documentary
        http://abc.net.au/science/crude/ [abc.net.au]
      • by laura20 (21566)
        Still, you'd expect that the cryophile descendents would find it easy to reinvade the ice; nature tends to be very parsimonious with genes, so you'd expect much of the cryophile suite to be available for reuse/reactivation when the environmental pressures started going the other way.
    • Well they think this rock has been completely frozen over and completely thawed out a couple times and we still here so that should count for some cryophilae. The other thing is the research detected RNA chains and most life (on Earth anyways) is DNA based.
    • Oxygen Catastrophe? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Cybrex (156654) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @10:39PM (#22286898)
      I'm in no way qualified to even speak on this subject, but could it be that the Oxygen Catastrophe [en.wikipedia], in wiping out the great majority of life on Earth, provided sufficient selective pressure that any previous bias toward cryophilic life was effectively erased? I'm just speculating wildly here.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by OzRoy (602691)
        Except the Oxygen Catastrophe caused the first ice age.

        With ice in abundance the ice tolerant creatures have just as much, maybe a greater chance of surviving.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by guywcole (984149)
        Didn't the Oxygen Catastrophe create a "snowball earth" as it removed the vast majority of CO2 from the atmosphere and lowered global temperatures by something like 25 deg. C?

        I would think that the Oxygen Catastrophe would have selected more towards the cryophiles, not away. This, also, is wild speculation.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Zebraheaded (1229302)
      From what I remember, there's been a fair amount of species found that have developed a tolerance for cold temperatures; but there's been very limited results of research into obligate psychrophiles, which would have more likely evolved in a cold environment. I think this field is one of those areas of bacterial research that is going to be very slow in developing due to the incredible difficulty of culturing these kinds of organisms in vitro. One of my old professors published a very interesting paper on
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by repapetilto (1219852)
      My impression from the article is that a cold, ice environment facilitates the creation of single nucleotides (and obviously other molecules) from "scratch' due to 1) the ice surface acting as a catalyst, and 2) water tending to form into crystals (a more stable arrangement in cold temperatures) which requires the exclusion of other molecules to elsewhere and hence small pockets with high concentrations of molecules with similar polarity. Basically the first phenomenon is a lowering of the Activation energ
    • by jd (1658)
      Although "Ice Worms" are a product of a mutation, it was a single mutation and therefore may well be a throwback to an earlier form.
    • This is an excellent point - what you describe is the most natural/parsimonious expectation from the theory. However, I think there is enough wiggle room to evade this objection. Perhaps the ancestoral cyrophiles relied on cyanide snowing from the sky. Or perhaps once life evolved sufficient complexity, it benefited greatly from escaping the icy womb. Then temperate life quickly evolves and eventually reinvades the cryophile niches and drives the ancestoral forms to extinction. (E.g. imagine cetacians drivi
    • I'd love to hear if biologists have found evidence for a widely shared mechanism for ice-tolerance that speaks to a frozen beginning.

      Bacteria have pretty efficient genomes; any such mechanisms would have been long lost in descendants that don't live in the ice.

      Unless the Earth experienced a 100% ice-free period,

      It probably did, but not even that is necessary: even if there had always been polar ice caps, there is no region where ice has survived permanently. Therefore, any of the original ice dwelling orga
  • by lennier (44736) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @09:36PM (#22286568) Homepage
    Some say in ice
    From what I've tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire
    But if it had to bootstrap twice
    I think I know enough of genes
    To say that for mutation ice
    Is also keen
    And would suffice

  • by Tsiangkun (746511) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @10:08PM (#22286744) Homepage
    I think they are saying that the molecular precursors to life on earth, can be created in ice. We see large chunks of flying ice in the universe. Our planet may have been implanted with the required precursors for life from ice flying into the planet.

    I don't know so much that they are intending to say that the earliest life forms were created in ice.

    But I don't know, I didn't read the article. Just taking a break from the superbowl.
  • ...not Discovery.

    Pedantic, yes, but errors in the summary irritate me no end.
  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @10:43PM (#22286912)
    He was able to create the constituents of RNA and proteins from a mixture of cyanide, ammonia and ice in trials lasting up to 25 years.

    Another early experiment, in which he added Vanilla [wikipedia.org] to the mix still haunts Professor Miller to this day.

  • by doomy (7461) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @11:11PM (#22287050) Homepage Journal
    According to him:

    "It's funny. It's cute. But here's what I really think about the theory of evolution: It's not real. It is not the way we got here. In fact, the life you see on this planet is really just a list of creatures God has allowed to live. We are not creations of random chance. We are not accidents. There is a God, a Creator, who made you and me. We were made in His image, which separates us from all other creatures."

    http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=52567 [worldnetdaily.com]
  • Damn it. (Score:3, Funny)

    by naturalog (1123935) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @11:29PM (#22287154)
    Now all the crazy evangelicals will be saying that scientists think we all came from ice cubes.
  • by csoto (220540) on Monday February 04, 2008 @12:12AM (#22287418)
    but that would be kind of a chicken-and-egg thing, now wouldn't it?
  • The sad irony is that Himmler and other leading Nazis believed something somewhat similar, namely that Aryans were created in cosmic ice (which then rained down on earth and spawned Germanic tribes).

    Seriously.

  • Earth's Temp (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bendodge (998616) <[bendodge] [at] [bsgprogrammers.com]> on Monday February 04, 2008 @01:51AM (#22287902) Homepage Journal
    So will global warming stop evolution?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by thepotoo (829391)

      So will global warming stop evolution?

      Is that a serious question? The answer is no, because the only way to stop evolution is to extinguish all life as we know it.

      As long as any organism is alive and has the ability to reproduce with genetic drift, life will continue to evolve. Besides, our predictions of global temperature increase by the end of the century are all below increases of 15C. Species which are adapted to higher temperatures, like Thermus aquaticus, will certainly not be wiped out by global

      • This is not that simple.

        Of course, even the bad scenarii are not doomsday ones, life will not disapear, neither will mankind.
        However, the worst scenarii mean that the changes will happen in a very short duration, far too short for an evolutionary adaptation. Some species could move to more suited areas, but there is a risk many other would face the fate of the mamooth and suffer extinction. Of course, people could move around crops to match the new climate, but there will still be a risk of losing a lot of
      • by bendodge (998616)

        Is that a serious question?
        No, it wasn't. I have a very low opinion of life-from-rocks and global warming. Shoot my karma if it makes you feel any better.
  • I have read Dr. Stanley Miller's work sine the 80s, He is a meticulous and persistant with his experiments. His conjectures run all over the map. I saw a lecture given by him in the early 90s, when he was progressing away from primordial soup. What is interesting is that He is moving towards the theories of Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe that life evolved on comets. Of all the 'science' and 'scientists' its after reading their work, and discussing it with post-docs from MIT, that I have a great respect fo
    • by mspohr (589790)

      The problem about the origin of life, (which has a direct impact on the evaluation of Drake's equation) is how hard is it to make a molecule, by 'chance' that is selectively self-replicating.

      It doesn't really matter how hard it is to make a molecule that will be self-replicating. Just make lots of molecules. Eventually, the self-replicating ones will self-replicate and take over the world. You only need one. The ones that don't replicate won't be heard from again. The whole random mutation and natural

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